I suppose this is an entry that is long overdo. Despite the fact that I am now on the beach in Vietnam, have traversed several countries by train in the last few weeks, and am geographically veryveryvery far away from the windswept, bone-chilling sandstorms of the Mongolian spring, I am still writing about this country.
Before I get started, I wanted to explicitely state my intentions in writing this article: to point to the dangers, from a feminist woman’s perspective, of feeding the fires of extreme nationalism and/or ethnic blood superiority rhetoric. I by no means want to say that all Mongolians think this way; I am simply saying that these tendencies exist in contemporary Mongolian culture and why I perceive them to be limiting and dangerous. There are all types of people in Mongolia, just like everywhere else!
The reason I have been brooding over this particular issue recently – the issue of racism towards the Chinese, Mongolian nationalism and patriarchy- is an incident I experienced recently while in Beijing:
A few days after leaving Mongolia by train (and internally coping with the feeling of loss that came with it), I was trying to get back to my hostel after going to a bar late at night on the other end of town (and Beijing is a big town!). Unbeknownst to me, the trains stop around 11, so I ended up with a friend on the side of a freeway trying to flag down a cab. We weren’t alone; several others had also been ousted by the train schedule and were trying to get home.
I guess living in Asia has made me pretty good at recognizing face structures, cause I can now pretty much pick a Mongolian out of a crowd. And down the line a few meters from me was a man speaking English and not Chinese like the rest. I knew immediately that he was Mongolian and walked up to him to ask where he was going and if he wanted to share a cab.
“Ta Mongol hun uu?” I asked and the look on his face was priceless. Guess it wasn’t everyday that a white woman walked up to him and spoke Mongolian. We exchanged basic pleasantries and introductions, but that was all ruined by the following:
While my Mongolian counterpart hadn’t been looking, a cab had pulled up next to us. But, instead of waiting, a Chinese man who had been standing nearby got in the cab. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with this, since we had been talking and distracted. But once the Mongolian man noticed, he lost it:
“Get out you stupid fag***!” he yelled in English. “You stupid Chinese f***,” I am the blood of Genghis Khan, not like you you stupid, weak Chinese!”
He was flipping out. The Chinese dude in the car and the man standing next to me were screaming at each other. The Mongolian man kept yelling about him having the blood of the great, strong Genghis Khan, in contrast to his weak, ‘infertile’ Chinese counterpart. The man in the cab flicked the Mongolian off and sped away.
During this exchange a different cab pulled up. My friend and I quickly jumped in and left the racist Mongolian man behind still no better off than he had been 10 minutes beforehand…
But the entire thing left a very sour taste in my mouth. What a statement this Mongolian man is making about Mongolian culture while being in a foreign country! What an exchange laced with blood-based, fertility-laden allegories of national superiority.. yuck! If you hate China so much, why are you even IN China?
I had to write about it.
Sinophobia, or racism and/or hatred of Chinese culture and ethnicity, resonates very strongly with many Mongolians. While traveling through the countryside during research (initially) on nutrition, herders would repeatedly tell me that they don’t trust fruit, because all fruit is from China and thus poisoned. When I first came to Mongolia six years ago, gangs of orphans used to roam the streets of UB and accost travelers for money. These gangs are conspicuously absent now with many people claiming that these kids have been taken by the Chinese and shipped off into the Chinese organ trade. And, obviously due to the Chinese government’s usurpation tendencies, Mongolians fear that the Chinese propaganda machine will eventually turn its gaze to the wide and (mostly empty) Mongolian steppe.
This deep-seated dislike towards the Chinese did not solely arise on its own. Rhetoric propagated by the Soviet Union in attempts to keep the Mongol nation from getting stronger played a large role in defining what contemporary Mongolians conceive as as “Mongolian.” As I read in this article recently:
“In the first years of the existence of the [Mongolian] nation (note: which was founded in 1921), Mongols expressed a strong desire to create a Greater Mongolia that would include ethnically Mongolian regions of both China and Russia (Inner Mongolia and Buryatia respectively). The Russians were wary of the emergence of such a large political entity and they appealed to various tactics to create distance between the Mongols of the Republic of Mongolia and other Mongolian groups. As a result of these policies Mongolianness has come to take on a very narrow interpretation… Throughout the Socialist period, the notion of Chinese threat was routinely mobilised by the Russians for political reasons.”
So, although fears of economic dependence on China maybe legitimate and have a historical basis (I mean what country is NOT dependent on China?), many of these rumors are dramatized to serve a different purpose. I asked the Mongolian National Nutrition Center about the fruit fears, which did chemical tests on Mongolian fruit and found out that the rumor regarding the poor quality of Chinese fruit entering Mongolia is simply not true. It’s just an excuse to not eat fruit, but it proves a valuable point behind a lot of the stories and rumors circulating about the Chinese in Mongolian popular culture. Hatred of the Chinese has proven to be a very good rallying cry to unite Mongolians in this unstable, increasingly globalizing world. Furthermore, it upholds ‘traditional’ patriarchal Mongolian culture at a time when women are questioning the traditional gender divide, and has led to the growing sympathy behind and rise of Mongolian ultra-nationalist groups like Dayar Mongol (whose flag prominently features a giant swastika), Blue Mongol and White Swastika.
Thus, it was super interesting to get into multiple conversations with the Chinese I encountered on my travels regarding Mongolia. The Chinese citizens I talked to knew virtually nothing about their northern neighbor, except for one line in the official history book that stated that Mongolia used to be part of China. Considering how much time Mongolians spend talking about China it is odd to hear how little the Chinese think about them.
Woman = Womb, Man = Mongolianness
Setting politics aside for anthropology, if you look at any patrilineal society – a society in which a woman joins the man’s household upon marriage and inheritance is conveyed through the male’s family – a woman’s prime function becomes the continuation of the male bloodline. Reproduction of male heirs is elevated and becomes a woman’s raison d’être in order to continue the male lineage. Thus, the preference in many societies for male children.
A Western vestigial of this patrilineal inheritance is the acquisition of the husband’s name upon marriage (which obviously still exists). In Mongolia, children get their father’s first name, which is then put before their own name… but the meaning is the same. According to ultra-nationalist rhetoric, you are your father’s child. You are of his blood. Your mother was just the carrier.
I also carried the weight of this distinction when I tried to define myself as half-American, half-German to Mongolians using the Mongolian word эрлийз (“erliiz”). ’Erliiz’ refers to mixed-heritage children and could be translated as half-blood, which doesn’t sound so nice in whatever language you translate it into (i.e. Mongolian women calling me ‘Mischling’ while speaking to me in German). The question that initially shocked me and subsequently irritated me was when I would be asked, after proclaiming my ‘erliiz’-ness, where my father came from. I came to realize that my mother’s lineage was of secondary importance, and that my heritage was mostly defined through my father, something that irritated me and made me feel like my right to define my own identity (and those of any hypothetical children of mine) was being removed.
But this makes sense from a patrilineal and patriarchal societal standpoint. Because lineage is passed down through the father’s line and children belong to that line the really only important ethnic marker of a child’s heritage is the father’s sperm. And women become empty wombs without ethnic/national/identity markers.
A personal anecdote from my own life: The woman = womb, man = ethnicity standpoint is not new. The reason my siblings, who are 20 years older than I am, do not have German citizenship is because of an antiquated German citizenship law that only allowed German heritage to be passed down through the father’s line. Because my siblings only had a German mother – a non-ethnic ‘womb’ – they weren’t granted citizenship. Just an example from Western culture of the same tendency, which points to being rooting in patrilineal/patriarchal nationalist societies that turn women into male heir, bloodline reproducers and remove their rights to their children (*cough*Nazis*cough*). This law was revised in 1974.
The Extinction Myth
Nothing seems to unite contesting groups more than the idea of a joint enemy. And China looms in the Mongolian cultural consciousness like a feral specter in the distance ready to pounce at the next available opportunity. And this fear that China (and other foreigners) will one day take over and wipe the map clean of Mongolia has created a nationalist backlash.
I, myself, ended up at some pretty dodgy nationalist concerts while in Mongolia and I often felt unsafe. However, my status as a white woman seemed to be less of a threat (although not completely safe, I am not an ethnic (sperm) driven threat to nationalist groups). Thus, when the Mongolian man in Beijing was screaming at the taxi-caper culprit, he kept alluding to the superiority of his sperm, bloodline and thus strength, in comparison to the supposed weakness and infertility of the Chinese man.
I had the opportunity to see quite a few Dayar Mongol protests on Sukhbaatar Square at the end of last year. The following statement from the organizations head, D. Gansuren, illustrates the extinction myth that feeds nationalist groups; the fear of loosing the bloodline and the need to defend the motherland against the evil invading foreigners:
“We should never forget that Mongolia was a powerful and great world empire. However, high ranking officials are corrupted and giving the land to the foreigners now. It should be mentioned that Mongolians are being beaten and yielded by foreigners who hire the Mongolians at lower wages. Let them do slave work in their own country. The ancestors of Mongolia did not sacrifice their lives to their enemy in order give the land to foreigners. That’s why I wish Mongolians would learn and have good examples from genius kings (referring to the Mongolian khans). Also they should follow the slogans of the kings, regarded as superior for the Mongolian heritage. We wanted to reawaken nationalistic views to the public through protest. The swastika symbolizes peace, firm, forever and long life.” (an entry regarding the Mongolian meaning of the swastika is another post…)
My Body Belongs to… Genghis Khan?
A gender juxtaposition thus results from the sentiments of blood, ethnic and sperm-based superiority: If you are a in-group woman dating a foreign man, you are creating foreign children and thus a traitor. But an in-group man can date a foreign woman and have children without any repercussions. The children that result from such a union have the sperm of the father and are thus of the in-group.
Resultingly, Dayar Mongol publically announced that any woman found sleeping with a Chinese man would have her head shaved (mimicking what the French did to young women who had slept with German soldiers during WWII and what Germans did with young women who had slept with non-Aryans). Many of my foreign friends had to be super vigilant while walking around with a Mongolian-looking woman (didn’t matter if she was actually Mongolian), and most Caucasian men dating Mongolian women can’t go out in UB with their significant other for fears of getting beaten up. However, I had no problem dating Mongolian men; in fact, it was widely encouraged by everyone I met and I was even asked if I wanted to have ‘Mongol babies’ (I do not.).
A great quote by Undarya Tumursukh encapsulates the dangers of extreme nationalism regarding a woman’s agency:
“Nationalisms turn the control of women, their bodies, and their sexuality into a matter of national importance by defining patriarchy as the core of national identity” (you can find her article here).
Mongolian Sinophobia uses reactionist fear to uphold a patriarchal tradition that limits a woman’s role to a reproductive function, and, due to the need for ethnic preservation, regulates who she can sleep with and defines whose children she bares. No wonder all the pictures of Dayar Mongol are solely of young men!
I remember the first time while living with a nomadic herder family in Bayankhongor that the father of the family came up to his kids and grabbed his 2-year old son’s penis in a loving way. He shook it, laughed and looked at me and went “mongol.. MONGOL!” as if to tell me that this boy’s member was the key to the continuation of the Mongolian nation. I have seen this repeated in different families several times since. This scene has taken on a completely new meaning for me.